One Faith, One Body

Members of one another

by Marilyn McEntyre

By the time we reached high school, most of us had encountered the story of Helen Keller, or seen images of Stephen Hawking or Franklin Roosevelt in wheelchairs or Mother Teresa holding a dying child. We learned that Flannery O’Connor lived with lupus and Scott Fitzgerald with alcoholism. Most of us knew a classmate with chronic health challenges like asthma or cystic fibrosis or life-threatening peanut allergies. We’ve all been amazed by injured athletes who continued to train broken bodies or veterans who overcame physical damage and PTSD to live lives of public service.

If we went to Sunday school or prayed before meals, we learned to thank God for good health and to lift up the suffering in prayers for healing. Some of us repeated weekly that we believed in an incarnate God who walked on earth, tired, hungry and thirsty at times, eating and drinking in human festivity at times, and who, everywhere he went, healed the sick. We affirmed our belief in the resurrection of the body.

Those of us in Christian communities learned, though perhaps not in quite these terms, that embodiment is a gift and a calling. Our bodies, “knit together in our mother’s wombs,” as Psalm 139 tells us, are ours to care for and train for work in the world. Though martyrs have been summoned to special heroism and people with disabilities teach us crucial lessons about courage, most of us live rather less dramatic daily lives of meal preparation, tooth brushing and routine health care, only occasionally remembering that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Many of us who enjoy good health take our bodies largely for granted and may even routinely abuse them by indulging in habits so thoroughly normalized by commercial culture we forget they’re harmful: consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar a day or eating burgers loaded with fat, cholesterol and sodium. Even those of us who eschew fast food often avert our gaze from the public health consequences of abusive factory farming practices or pesticides or the onerous complexities of health care that make routine medical attention unaffordable for many. It’s easier to confine our concerns about health to our own bodies. In a culture with a history of insistent individualism we have inherited a bias toward insular thinking about our bodies, our families, our career choices, our mobility.

Those of us in Christian communities learned that embodiment is a gift and a calling.

As people of faith and members of one another, however, we have responsibilities for each other’s health and well-being, and for fostering communities where everyone can thrive. This means not only caring for the sick, but noticing why they got sick, what might prevent more sickness, and how to support not only individuals’ healing but the health of the soil, the food system, and the institutions that offer health care.

Consider Jesus’ mandates to care for the whole person as we live out our faith: heal the sick; feed the hungry; visit the imprisoned; care for the widow and the orphan; comfort those who mourn. We do these things when we tend children and prepare meals, and also when we hire faith community nurses or sponsor blood drives or include mission hospitals in the church budget.

In every congregation there are those who seek respite in worship from partisan ideologues who litter public discourse with invective even about health care.

But our worship does not mean we forget our concerns for the good of the whole, for public life, health and conversations that challenge and deepen our efforts to seek truth and follow after it. In a climate where health care has been so intensely politicized, churches need to hang onto the fact, despite the partisanship and the wrangling, that we are all in it together. Our health concerns are a shared matter, and what we think of as personal health issues generally have roots in public concerns.

Each of Jesus’ mandates has a public dimension. Heal the sick might mean connecting skyrocketing diabetes and obesity rates to “food deserts” and aggressive soft drink ads. Feed the hungry implies also educating ourselves about why hunger continues in a country where the world’s wealth is so highly concentrated. Visit the imprisoned might now imply some awareness of how much mental illness and poverty are criminalized, and how little is “corrected” in “correctional institutions.” Care for the widow and the orphan might involve a hard look at the foster care system and at what it means to live on a Social Security check. And when it is our turn to comfort those who mourn we might step up to that call by supporting efforts to make resources available to those whose grief leads to chronic depression or economic hardship.

As members of Christ’s body we are members of one another. The church, though riddled with divisions and disputes, calls us to recognize one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one hope. It calls us also to be good and faithful stewards of our wealth, our health, our bodies, and of what the Book of Common Prayer describes as “this fragile earth, our island home” in order to honor the purposes of the One who shaped us from a handful of dust, breathed on that dust, and saw that it was good.

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